Born in Russia: Somebody that I used to know

We never forget about our first love, do we? Some of us are lucky and their first love is the love of their lives (the story of my grand-parents), but most of us either search for the one (real love with sparkles), or settle for the mediocrity, such as ‘settling’ with someone for the sake of being settled, or looking for someone who can provide (women) or clean the house (men).


I will never forget my first love because he was a very interesting guy, and I can’t forget him because he gave me confidence. Confidence that I wasn’t that bad-looking, was ‘datable’, and could get the best guy on earth if only I wouldn’t ruin it, like I did with him, something which, unfortunately, stayed with me till the day. 
Present me with ‘the one’, and I will find a reason to ruin it.
Misha wasn’t the best guy on earth but he was definitely the most popular guy at our school. I was fourteen when I met him, he was sixteen, joining our school to finish final year after having lived on the other side of Moscow. His mother was our teacher in chemistry.
He soon became the talk of the whole school, among both girls and boys alike. Not only he was very good-looking, funny and smart, he was also different from everyone else. Like, for instance, he didn’t give a damn about any rules and would smoke a cigarette right at the entrance to the school, where his mother was giving classes and where he was supposed to study. I didn’t pay any attention to him (apart from making a mental note that I should dare an act of smoking right in front of the school when I reached my final year, instead of hiding behind the entrance at the back at that time), because there was no chance he would ever notice me. Why should he? I was two years younger, in a class that older boys usually ignored (too studious, etc…not me and my best friend, but he wouldn’t know), with pimples, having a weird hair-do, wearing terrible clothes, and not the prettiest girl in the school. Probably, the opposite.

(me at that time)
But it was me he addressed once we approached the entrance of the school with my best friend.“Got any lighter?” he asked me, and I was so shocked by the request (more like by the fact that he was talking to me) that I answered the first thing which came into my mind, which should be a lesson to hold my tongue in the future…to no avail.
“Not on me at this moment, unless I try to push it out of me”.
I, obviously, thought about my reply for the rest of the day, and days after, because I couldn’t believe that I could be so stupid. I also reckoned that I had turned totally red when I had spoken, which was another disaster. It wasn’t anymore about just paying attention to Misha, it was about thinking about him all the bloody time from that moment on. Soon it became the talk of the whole school, Misha and me. Girls from my class would run to me and whisper into my ear: “We heard Misha discussing with other boys whether Ekaterina should become his girlfriend!”Misha himself would come into our class, for some reason during maths, when the whole class was waiting in fear for the appearance of our scary teacher in maths, with on one occasion, his own mum, a teacher in chemistry, coming in, in order to drag him out back into the corridor.

I became the best pupil in chemistry. Well, I had to, since I fancied the son of the teacher. It took me a month of sleepless nights but I arrived. The teacher (the mum) was so impressed that she didn’t drag Misha from our class in maths next time, once she saw that Misha was chatting to me, with the whole class (mostly girls) watching the scene in total bewilderment.
All nice and rosy until Misha invited me on a date. The idea was to spend the Easter together. It was weird, but never mind. After that, I find it boring when someone offers a normal date. A dinner and a drink? Thank you very much but I rather spend a night marching five kilometres in Moscow. That’s what we did, with Misha. We met in the centre and just walked and walked until we reached my apartment, five kilometres further, where my step-mother was pouring my dad some vodka, keeping him away in the kitchen, so that he doesn’t kill Misha the moment he meets him. At two o’clock in the morning. We went to the living room. My step-mum brought us some cakes, tea and other treats, closing the door behind and managing to continue calming my dad. Misha was supposed to sleep where I was, in the same room, not that anyone would sleep with each other, which was the main concern of my dad, and he made sure to visit the toilette every five minutes for the rest of the night, making sure that no one would get any sleep in any case. In retrospect I realise now that it was a perfect moment for me to loose my virginity, with a guy with whom I was in love and who fancied me back. But no, I pretended to be an idiot. The moment when we finally ended up in the room together, I became so shy that for some reason I decided to ransack one of my cupboards and drag out my collection of barbies (two dolls) and show them to Misha. I still remember the reaction on his face. It was that unclear stare, a stage in between ‘shall I laugh, or run home?’ All transport was sleeping with the rest of Moscow’s population, making running impossible. But he should have laughed. He didn’t.

He then kissed me good-night, asking whether he could kiss me on the forehead. I said yes, without kissing him back on the lips. I was waiting for him to fall asleep for the rest of the night, but he never did, and we both lay there awake, regretting the lost opportunity. 
Misha dropped the talk about the possibility of me becoming his girlfriend after that night, and maybe for a good reason. Last time I checked he is now a spiritual yogi somewhere in India. Great, but I prefer more comfort in my daily life.

Still, while Misha looked exactly like that singer Gotye, he isn’t just ‘Somebody that I used to know’ (which is, ironically, a favourite song of my dad). I named my son after him. As they say it, first love never dies.

Moscow and the arrival of capitalism

I was a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly I found myself in a new country and in a new regime.

As things go in life, when you have to live through the unbelievable, you adjust pretty quickly, especially when you are young.

Still, the changes that my country was undergoing right before the collapse, and after, were remarkable.

It started with the emergence of ‘lareks’, the small ugly compact boxes decorating almost every street in Moscow, selling stuff. These were the first visible signs of capitalism, offering everything from coca-cola, mars chocolate, and spirits to tampons and cigarettes.

larek.png

(example of Larek)

No one was even thinking of checking for age, and together with my best-friend, Masha, we took advantage of this new development at once. We would stroll to one of such shops after school, buy coca-cola and cigarettes, and then stroll to the McDonald restaurant in the centre of the city for more ‘delights’. It was the first real fast-food event in our city, and therefore, very noticeable. The queue to the place would stretch for a kilometer, with people eager for the Big Mac and apple pies. Masha and I were still at school, we had plenty of time, and so, spending an hour at least in a queue, was really a minor matter, considering the joy of discovering McDonald when you are fourteen/thirteen, the age which is so easily corrupted by the allure of fast, unhealthy food. We would go for the big mac meal, together with milkshakes, and apple pies, barely able to walk after each feast at the ‘restaurant’. Smoking our cigarettes bought at the ‘larek’ as a complimentary measure following the escapade to McDonald, we would make plans for our new discoveries, ‘things to follow, to try’.

bbc world first macdonalds

The world suddenly turned upside down, and for Masha and me, it represented new undiscovered adventures. Everything seemed possible, everything was allowed. There was no one to explain that cigarettes were bad, or that fast-food was unhealthy. We could do anything we wanted, and when you are at that daring age of fourteen, you, obviously, dare to pursue the temptations.

I remember the day when we first entered the casino in the centre of Moscow, situated at the prestigious hotel in the centre. Our aim was really unclear, we didn’t plan any playing or betting, but we wanted to have a look. Having established that anything, absolutely anything was possible in our new brand world, called the ‘capitalism’, we started to push the boundaries to a tricky and often, dangerous extent.

We wanted to be clever, we wanted to be smart. We were too young for the grown up world in its whole glory, but the truth was clear to our eyes: in the new regime, under the new ideology, the crown belonged to those who overcame the rules, bent them, and went for what they wanted. At that time we wanted to be among the grown-ups, and thus, we went to where the adults had fun. The adults who seemed to rule the new world, based on money and status. That first entrance to the casino was our first appearance among the cool ones, and since it had worked (we got the entry), we tried all other, prestigious and luxurious places.

Masha and I would dress in what we judged to be smart clothes, while in reality, it was what most of Moscow was wearing at that time. Clothes were still rare, at least, interesting, clothes, but I was luckier than others because my mum worked in Italy then and would bring me good stuff, while Masha had extremely resourceful mum.  Masha, would simply borrow her sophisticated, beautiful dresses.

We would turn up at the entrance to the casino or the most prestigious club for foreigners, and play a game of getting in. Bouncers were strict, because these places were reserved strictly for the nouveu-riches or wealthy foreigners, and thus, we would start speaking French with Masha hundreds metres before approaching the bouncers. We attended a French school in Moscow, you see.

“Hello,” I would say to the bouncer, smiling in a conspiratory matter, as if I was about to unveil a bombshell. “This is the famous singer, Margerite Condounois, coming directly from Paris. I am her translator,” I would point towards Masha, leaning towards us as if she couldn’t understand a word, and then switch to a whispering mode to continue with my tale, “Miss Condonois is incognito here, to look at how the locals live, to relax little bit, so, please, make sure, it stays private,” I would then slip a note of some roubles into the hand of a bouncer, and proceed to the entrance. The money was very little (less than a pittance for a tip), because we didn’t have any, but it worked each and every time. Wherever we went, we were let in.

Now in retrospect, I think it worked because of the obvious lie. We looked too young to be international stars or translators, and on top of it, Masha looked way too Russian (distinctive Russian cheeks and blue eyes) , while it was me who could pass for a French, with some difficulties. And because of such a visible ‘oversight’ in our story, we were allowed to proceed, since the bouncers and security always believed in what we were saying. The opposite could pass for a truth, in case we were lying, that was their assumption.

As a result, Masha and I, attended the best casinos, restaurants, clubs, theatre performances, managed to get into the ‘White House’ twice, and into a private party of an oligarch in the making. Masha even went on stage to perform some songs in French (she could indeed sing), and we ended up being paid on several occasions.

We exited the narrative of the life of the glory and the rich, when we both realized that we were after different things. We wanted to study, to be independent, to discover the world, to read books, and to remain young, care-free girls for longer, instead of turning into ‘gold-diggers’.

As a result, despite the absolute madness of that times, I am also grateful that I discovered the inside of it, the inside of what it means when one lives one’s life based on money, power, and more money. Each time Masha and I succeeded to enter the world of the powerful and wealthy, it led to a terrible disappointment. There was nothing of real interest there, no real discussions, no interesting talks, no spontaneity. No philosophy, no deepness, no soul, and no real laughter. We looked, we observed, and we made our minds. We wanted to remain in that old world, in that space in between the ideologies, where feelings, people, and soul discovery mattered more than one’s bank account.

Ironically, we remained true to our convictions, where life is interesting on a daily basis, when you look for something deeper than money and status.

masha and me

(The view of Moscow with my best-friend Masha, five years ago)

Madness as manifestation of the world around. Moscow in 1990s

Having looked at Moscow in 1989 in my previous post, we are going to stay there for the time being, but move a couple of years forward.

We are staying there, because I want to start demonstrating that madness is not just a state that affects individuals at some point or another, but can also be a manifestation of the society as such. And while it is also very much present in the Western hemisphere (where we will move together in 1995, when I went to Brussels to do a Bachelor degree in French), Russia and my native town, Moscow, were a typical, very outspoken examples of that particular case, when madness strikes the society, deeply and profoundly, without that individuals affected realise it, or if they realise it, they either keep it for themselves (like I did), or they reanalyse it in retrospect. That moment when you look at some past, and say, loud and clear, yes, that was totally insane.

As Nietzsche once said:

“Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages, it is the rule.”

So, Moscow in 1990 to 1992 and beyond, represented quite an interesting sight.

Moscow at that time (from my archive)

You can watch the depiction of these times in a brilliant movie, called ‘Taxi-Blues’ by Pavel Lungin (trailer), which starts with showing us the glimpse of Kashpirovsky, hypnotising the entire nation from state TV in 1989, and then proceeds in telling us the story of how ordinary people managed (or not) to survive that period. As we all know, Gorbachev, came up with his ideas of ‘democracy’, ‘glasnost’, and ‘freedom of speech’, that he tried to incorporate into real life by demonstrating an absolute act of insanity, such as banning alcohol at some point. My dad worked at a local communist council by that time and used to receive ‘special’ packages once a month. Before the arrival of Gorbachev, packages contained some interesting variety of cheese, one type of sausage, some biscuits, and a bottle of vodka. Once Gorbatchev introduced his ban on alcohol, the bottle of vodka was replaced by lemonade.

My dad used to joke about the new measures, saying that: “One Russian is a drunk, two Russians are a drunken party, and three Russians are a local communist party.” It was all done in good spirit, because alcohol was still, obviously, available, made by desperate Russians in the safety of their homes. The name was ‘Samogon’, and local psychiatric hospitals were struggling with the new intake of patients, who were either intoxicated by the homemade spirit, or feeling very unwell after the séances of Kashpirovsky on the TV.

Being a teenager at that time, I was taking it all in as a really curious observer. In all honesty, I was totally bewildered by what was becoming with my native town, my country, and my surroundings. Having lots of free time for myself, I would often take a notebook and write in it, while walking around the streets of Moscow. The view was indeed, how to say it, (amazing is probably a wrong word to describe the peculiarity of madness) stupefying. Kashpirovsky’s appearance on the TV seemed to have led to a particular phenomenon outside of the state TV, such as resurgence of all things ‘psychic’ literally on every corner. Wherever you looked, you could either see a palm reader, or a nice old kind lady, offering a Tarot spread, right next to a Russian Orthodox Church. Churches were reopening their doors next to newly established businesses, specialising in all kinds of magic. You could order a love spell, or ask to get rid of your enemy, and the problem was, that it all worked in reality. People disappeared every day, the unwanted elements were get rid by the widespread mafia, and at some point my entire family had to hide in a remote apartment, because my dad had refused to accept payment for his business in yet another huge stock of ‘Triumph’ lingerie, instead of much needed cash.

My own problem was a particular one. I had a ‘psychic’ intuition myself. I could see the fakes, the greedy ones, and the evil. I could also feel that something totally wrong was taking place in my country, at the level way above my head, such as rubbing an entire nation of its resources and money in a matter of one year (maybe two, but I remember it more as a participant, rather than as a historian with concrete facts). The state companies offered ‘vouchers’ to the laypeople, and it was done right when the whole Russia was having a starvation problem. Shops were empty, and the lucky ones would get an ‘American aid’ at schools. As other children, I was entitled to one and would often carry the cartoon box (containing the aid) to my grandma, who, as other old people, had nothing at all. We would open the box, hoping for something better than last time, but it was always the same: uneatable dry ‘sausage’ (it was called a sausage, but it didn’t taste anything like that), and bottles of dry milk.

Since there was nothing else in the fridge, we would eat that.

The same companies which had given vouchers to the laypeople, started to buy them off the deprived, desperate people for a penny back. It was all done right when shops suddenly started to get some spare products in. My grandma was among those who sold her voucher, as she just wanted little bit of cash, to buy some bread, to buy some nicer food, to buy some boots in order to be able to walk in harsh winter.

We all know now, that it was a moment when oligarchs were made, but not that many people know, of course, that it all happened when Moscow city and the whole Russia was under the curse of evil magic, orchestrated under Yeltsin and his entourage.

So, yes, madness as such, to conclude my argument for this post, is nothing more than an outburst of grotesque and incomprehensible at any given time. It is not madness as such which is a problem, and definitely, not an innocent weird eccentric who points you to its manifestations. The problem is when it is all taken into the hands by evil, greedy people, who want nothing more but power, money, and even more money.